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In 1941, during his practical training at kibbutz Ramat Yohanan, Rabin joined the newly formed Palmach section of the Haganah, under the influence of Yigal Allon. Rabin could not yet operate a machine gun, drive a car, or ride a motorcycle, but Moshe Dayan accepted the new recruit. The first operation he participated in was assisting the allied invasion of Lebanon, then held by Vichy French forces (the same operation in which Dayan lost his eye) in June–July 1941. Allon continued to train the young Palmach forces.
As a Palmachnik, Rabin and his men had to lie low to avoid arousing inquiry from the British administration. They spent most of their time farming, training secretly part-time. They wore no uniforms and received no public recognition during this time. In 1943, Rabin took command of a platoon at Kfar Giladi. He trained his men in modern tactics and how to conduct lightning attacks.
After the end of the war the relationship between the Palmach and the British authorities became strained, especially with respect to the treatment of Jewish immigration. In October 1945 Rabin planned a Palmach raid on the Atlit detainee camp in which 208 Jewish illegal immigrants who had been interned there were freed. In the Black Shabbat, a massive British operation against the leaders of the Jewish Establishment in the British Mandate of Palestine and the Palmach, Rabin was arrested and detained for five months. After his release he became the commander of the second Palmach battalion and rose to the position of Chief Operations Officer of the Palmach in October 1947.
During the 1948 Arab–Israeli War Rabin directed Israeli operations in Jerusalem and fought the Egyptian army in the Negev. During the beginning of the war he was the commander of the Harel Brigade, which fought on the road to Jerusalem from the coastal plain, including the Israeli "Burma Road", as well as many battles in Jerusalem, such as securing the southern side of the city by recapturing kibbutz Ramat Rachel.
During the first truce Rabin commanded IDF forces on the beach of Tel Aviv confronting the Irgun during the Altalena Affair.
In the following period he was the deputy commander of Operation Danny, the largest scale operation to that point, which involved four IDF brigades. The cities of Ramle and Lydda were captured, as well as the major airport in Lydda, as part of the operation. Following the capture of the two towns there was an expulsion of their Arab population. Rabin signed the expulsion order, which included the following:
Later, Rabin was chief of operations for the Southern Front and participated in the major battles ending the fighting there, including Operation Yoav and Operation Horev.
In the beginning of 1949 he was a member of the Israeli delegation to the armistice talks with Egypt that were held on the island of Rhodes. The result of the negotiations were the 1949 Armistice Agreements, which ended the official hostilities of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. Following the demobilization at the end of the war he was the most senior (former) member of the Palmach that remained in the IDF.
Like many Palmach leaders, Rabin was politically aligned with the left wing pro-Soviet Ahdut HaAvoda party and later Mapam. These officers were distrusted by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and several resigned from the army in 1953 after a series of confrontations. Those members of Mapam who remained, such as Rabin, Haim Bar-Lev and David Elazar, had to endure several years in staff or training posts before resuming their careers.
Rabin headed Israel's Northern Command from 1956 to 1959. In 1964 he was appointed chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) by Levi Eshkol, who had replaced David Ben-Gurion as Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. Since Eshkol did not have much military experience and trusted Rabin's judgement, he had a very free hand. According to the memoirs of Eshkol's military secretary, Eshkol followed Rabin "with closed eyes".
Under his command, the IDF achieved victory over Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six-Day War in 1967. After the Old City of Jerusalem was captured by the IDF, Rabin was among the first to visit the Old City, and delivered a famous speech on Mount Scopus, at the Hebrew University. In the days leading up to the war, it was reported that Rabin suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to function. After this short hiatus, he resumed full command over the IDF.